On Generosity, and how (not to) help in Haiti

A friend of mine posted this link on FB the other day and I wanted to comment on it. It is an article about how good intentions can fall short of the mark in humanitarian situations, why sending food and clothes isn't as helpful as it's intended to be, and why you shouldn't just show up in Port-au-Prince to help.

I think as yogis and yoginis, we are particularly likely to want to reach out in tragic situations, to be proactive, to DO something that we feel can alleviate the suffering we see. The article points out, however, that donating old clothing, food or medicines is not really an effective way to help people on the ground.

As someone who has worked in a humanitarian emergency - on a much smaller scale! here in East Timor in 2006 - this article rings true to me. In emergency situations, the most critical priorities become meeting basic needs: shelter, water, food, and sanitation. With no home to go back to, no place to wash or change, people don't need much clothing. They certainly don't need items like cup-of-soup, or tinned goods - if your house collapsed, how many of you would have a can opener in your back pocket? What people need are what we call basic food and non-food items: buckets, tarpaulins, blankets, bed-nets, clean water, soap, food supplements (usually bags of nutrient enriched flour) and basic cooking items. In addition, they need technical teams to clear rubble, erect temporary shelters, dig and pump out latrines, bring running water, administer medicines and coordinate basic services.

In any case, as the article points out, despite the honest, pure and good intentions of most material donations, the best way to really help in Haiti is to contribute financially to an established NGO. It may not feel as personal - but after all, this is not about us.

Which brings me to muse on generosity. The article highlights a trend in in-kind donations - the giving away of unwanted items of clothing, many of which may be inappropriate for the context (I mean, thong panties and stilettos? seriously?), and even of expired food and medicines (for crying out loud!!). No matter how good our intentions may be, giving away that which we do not need falls short of the mark of true generosity. Even more confusing, doing it in order to alleviate our OWN sense of helplessness and suffering crosses that murky line of attachment to the results of our actions.

The mere fact that we HAVE (and we all do!) closets of clothes that we no longer need, piles of shoes that we no longer wear and tins of expired food lining the shelves of store-rooms is a symptom of the deeper dis-ease of our society. Our over-consumption and materialism is the very antithesis of true generosity, our worship of riches and fear of poverty is the hallmark of our attachment to transient things.

In his inspiring book "Buddha is as Buddha Does", Lama Surya Das notes that generosity is the first paramita, or teaching of the Buddha, and in a sense, is the key to all others. True generosity, he says, "means breaking through the self-oriented attitude that we're making a sacrifice or that we're martyring ourselves", and rising above self-centeredness to live a compassionate life. "True generosity", he says, "is giving everything you have to every moment, and is the way of nonattachment."

Generosity is not as simple as just "giving" or "giving away". Lama Surya Das comments: "True generosity does not involve mindlessly handing over everything to anyone who asks." 'Generous' things done lazily, mindlessly or fearfully can end up doing harm, even though the person was trying to be helpful. "The parent who gives his spoiled child every toy the child wants may be showing more laziness than generosity," he gives as an example, "and ends up spoiling the child."

Obviously none of us are Buddhas yet (do you think Buddha would have a blog?). The struggle with non-attachment to the results of our actions is a daily one, two steps forward, one step back. But by being mindful about our urges to consume as well as to give, and by making sure our generosity is well-placed and is effective, we can make a good start down the path of untangling this complex web. So, if you want to give, give well. If your yoga studio is collecting donations for Haiti, encourage them to look deeper into how to help most effectively. Generosity means taking responsibility for our actions, and making them with mindfulness and wisdom.

On a lighter note, if Buddha did have a blog, what do you think it would be called? ;)